Art market forecasters would do well to pay attention to Sotheby’s auction of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s London. This year’s auction will feature a forgotten portrait of a Nigerian Princess by Ben Enwonwu and powerful works by Irma Stern, Yinka Shonibare Cbe, Gavin Jantjes, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, El Anatsui amongst others. Sotheby’s auction of Modern and Contemporary African Arts is a series auction initiated in 2017 to champion the work of artists across Africa and the wider diaspora, and underscoring a rising global interest in the field. Over 100 works, by artists from 21 countries, will be on view to the public from 21-24 March ahead of the auction on March 25.
The sale will be led by a radiant early painting by Nigerian master Ben Enwonwu. Until recently, the enigmatic sitter had been known only as the ‘Nigerian princess’ but, upon close examination, Sotheby’s specialists noticed intricate details which lead them to believe the sitter could be Princess Judith Safinet ‘Sefi’ Atta. The sitter’s blouse is fashioned from the Okene cloth produced by the Ebira women of Sefi’s hometown. Upon contacting Sefi’s daughter, the artist Obi Okigbo, she revealed that her mother knew Enwonwu well: “When Hannah sent me the photo of the painting, I felt like I was like looking at a portrait of myself. The family resemblance is remarkable”.
Painted in 1953, Sefi will appear at auction for the first time with an estimate of £200,000-300,000. Until now, the fine portrait has remained in the family collection of a prominent West African academic and writer. It was brought to Sotheby’s attention when the current owner requested a free estimate on Sotheby’s Online Estimate Platform (https://bit.ly/3aMDtQ0).
Speaking about the work, Hannah O’Leary, said:
“Stories like this are the reason I love what I do. Not only have we come across an outstanding early painting by Ben Enwonwu, we have also uncovered a moving story about Sefi herself – an accomplished force in the fight for women’s right to education in Nigeria and beyond. This portrait sits right at the crux of the cultural and artistic landscape of 20th century Nigeria. As the battle for a unified identity intensified, so did the passions of the writers, poets and painters who were working side by side – Ben Enwonwu, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clarke, and the poet Christopher Okigbo, the latter of whom Sefi married. It has been an honour to hear this story, and I am grateful to Sefi’s daughter Obi for letting me in.”
The appearance of this portrait follows hot on the heels of Enwonwu’s Christine, which was also presented to Sotheby’s before selling for £1.1 million at Sotheby’s last October – the second highest price for a work by the artist at auction.
And, in a remarkable coincidence, a bronze sculpture by Enwonwu will also feature in the sale (est. £100,000-150,000), which depicts Afi Ekong, one of Nigeria’s most famous female artists who was at that time married to Sefi’s brother. One of a limited edition, the original was purchased by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she sat for the artist in London in 1957. Together with Sefi, these two works are refined and proud portrayals of Nigerian royalty in the run up to independence in 1960.